TRANSMISSION OF THE INVISIBLE Choreography by Peter Chin (World Stage/Tribal Crackling Wind). At Enwave (231 Queens Quay West). February 6-9. $30. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
What happens to the culture of a country ravaged by war and brutality? Choreographer and director Peter Chin confronts this timely question in Transmission Of The Invisible, a look at Cambodian dance after the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s.
“About 10 per cent of dance artists were killed during that time,” says Chin, “and I’m interested in the re-building of those dance forms.”
During his research, which included a five-month residency at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, he met teachers who survived Pol Pot’s regime to instruct new students.
“Teachers teach steps and an aesthetic, but they also wanted to impart something that goes beyond technique: the invisible spirit of the culture,” he says. That’s where his title came from.
Chin says most Cambodian dancers acknowledge their ancestral teachers before they dance. And many dancers admit to having been possessed now and then by former teachers.
“Suddenly the student will start directing a rehearsal and say, ‘Too fast!’ or ‘We never used to do it like that!’ in the voice of the ancestral teacher. There really is a transmission of the invisible through other realms of time and space.”
The Kingston, Jamaica-born Chin is best known for his dance works inspired by other Asian countries, particularly Indonesia, where he studied in the 1990s. Cambodian dance, he discovered, is a little bit like Javanese.
“The hand movements and the slow elegance are similar,” he says. “It’s also similar to Thai dance, which came from Khmer culture in the 1400s. We probably know about Thai dance more because it’s a richer country and can export its culture more.”
The ambitious new work, which gets a prominent slot in the World Stage series, includes five dancers (two from Cambodia, three from Canada), an ambient soundscape and a video element that includes images of traumatized children, child psychologists and Buddhist monks.
“Monks,” he points out, “were also targeted by the Khmer Rouge.”
The modern-day Cambodian dance scene, explains Chin, is caught between the traditional and the new.
“I’m in both places,” he says. “Sometimes what you call tradition is really about prestige and status and presentation. But a lot of the Cambodian dances come from an animistic, shamanistic place that connects you to the primordial. I’m all for that.
“I’m also interested in new expressions. Every art form evolves.”